Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review: "The Geography of Thought" (Richard E Nisbett)

Title: The Geography of Thought - How Asians and Westerners Think . . . and Why
Author: Richard Nisbett
Published: NY: Free Press, 2003, (263 pp)

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why
This book is a fascinating read about the different ways that Asians and Westerners think. It all began when his student makes an observation that Westerners see the world like a 'line' while Asians see the world like a 'circle.' This sparked off a search into the background, the ecology, anthropology, philosophical and various aspects of culture that affects the Western and Asian thought. Some of the interesting questions posed are:

  • Why do Asians excel in Maths and Science? Yet, why does that not translate into more Nobel prize winners in that category, compared to Westerners?
  • Why is it more difficult for Asians to file lawsuits compared with their Western counterparts?
  • Why do Asian infants learn more verbs than nouns compared to the Western young?
  • How do all these cognitive differences affect International Relations, educational approaches, science, legal matters, perception and various cultural idiosyncrasies?
  • Why do Westerners tend toward individualism compared to the community preferences of Asians?
All of these questions alone should heighten anybody's curiosity. In fact, I think there are important in order to facilitate better understanding between the West and the East. The author begins with a philosophical treatment, Aristotle for the West and Confucius on the East. Westerners find it easier to approach life with a logic mindset, while Asians are more comfortable on a dialectic angle. In other words, Asians tend to be able to handle contradictions better, for they believe that truths can be derived from the understanding of both extremes.

How They Differ?
Westerners tend to go it alone, while Asians prefer community environment.The former tends toward independence, while the latter prefers interdependence. Westerners are comfortable with insisting on one 'correct' point of view, while Asians are more comfortable with a diversity of views. The Westerner thrives in individual brilliance and creativity, while Asians work better in groups.

Asians are more relational compared to the Westerner. This is because Westerners are able to deal with objects, while Asians tend to understand objects with reference to the contexts.

My Comments
At one look, it is easy to dismiss Nisbett's view as overly simplistic. I will ask that you hear him out first. Nisbett is a Westerner, teaching in a Western institution and an ardent admirer of Eastern culture and values. This unfortunately gives him a pointed biasness toward the East. Thus, his conclusion is predictable as he contrasts Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations with Francis Fukuyama's The End of History. While the former argues for increasing irreconcilable differences as cultures 'clash,' the latter predicts a convergence of the world driven by Western influence. His third way comes out of Fukuyama's thesis that there will be a convergence, but of EASTERN culture instead.

I feel that at times, Nisbett tends to be overly optimistic about the merits of the East, and too skeptical on the West. There is a lack of critique on the downsides of East, and a surface criticism of Western ideas. It would have been better if Nisbett can engage a co-author from the East to bring some different perspective to his work on cultural psychology. That would have given the book a better representation. Instead, what we have is a geography of thought based on a particular interpretation. In fact, the repetition can become boring at some point. Fortunately, the epilogue is an intelligent and forward looking anticipation of how the future will look like. If only he has spoken more about globalization, technology, mixed marriages, immigration, and various cultural convergences happening right now.

Good book, but it has to be read with an open mind.

Ratings: 3 stars of 5.


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